Caring for the poor and worshipping God are not mutually exclusive

ONE Cofounder Bono with the band Third Day. 

Tai Anderson an activist, longtime ONE supporter, and member of the band Third Day, has a special message for ONE on our 10-year anniversary. 

Wow. I can’t believe it has been 10 years. I hope you only live to be 25.

For anyone else in my life, this would be a completely inappropriate thing to say. But for ONE, an organization with the goal of ending extreme poverty, I mean it with all my heart.

You see, I get excited about a world that no longer needs ONE, and no longer needs me to remind my elected leaders to stay committed to the promises they make to those living in extreme poverty—or on less than $1.25 a day.

I get excited about a world without extreme poverty, and I think it’s possible. I also think it’s probable if we all stay the course.

Oftentimes in the faith community, anytime you talk about the ending of extreme poverty, someone is quick to point to scripture.

Matthew 26:11 says, “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.” (New International Version)

In the context of this scripture, Jesus is rebuking his closest followers (because we’re always hardest on our friends) to lay off a woman who was spending her savings on worshipping Jesus by washing his feet with fine perfume, an act of adoration in preparing Jesus for crucifixion.

I’ve heard fellow believers (and even myself) use this scripture in two ways that I now believe to be out of line with Jesus’ intent.

First of all, I’ve heard it quoted to justify lack of concern for the poor. This argument says, “You see, helping the poor is hopeless and pointless because the problem is never going away!”

Though I agree that material poverty is not going away in this life, I also believe that what “living in poverty” means is very subjective. In America, I have family members that are “poor.” They’re in debt, with uncertain lodging, and are living paycheck to paycheck with very little margin in their lives.

However, given the same lifestyle in sub-Saharan Africa or Haiti—two places I was able to visit 8 years ago–my family members would be among the wealthiest.

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Tai in Gulu, Uganda

ONE’s definition of extreme poverty is not subjective. It’s those living on far less than $2 a day. I gave $20 to a homeless woman holding a newborn woman in front of Wal-Mart tonight. It’s all I had on me, but I didn’t feel like I could sleep if I gave nothing.

That homeless woman, though poor by our standards, is a long way from extreme poverty, or what Bono calls “stupid, preventable” poverty. Yes, we will always have poverty to some degree in the world, but we can do away with senseless extreme poverty.

We can make sure that every child has access to food, shelter, clean water, medicine and an education. There may always be “haves” and “have nots,” but we can do away with the “have nones!” We can make sure everyone has a chance.

Secondly, Jesus spoke over and over again about “good news for the poor.” I’ve heard the verse used to justify a lack of concern for the poor because worshipping God is more important.

I don’t find this interpretation to be in context with God’s priorities, so my challenge would be to dig deeper. Look at the entirety of Jesus’ ministry. Flip through the Bible, and you’ll see a common thread.

God is very concerned with how we treat the poor. In fact, just a few verses earlier Jesus shares the parable of the sheep and the goats with a pretty poignant underscoring thought. “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Matthew 25:40.

You see, caring for the poor and worshipping God are not mutually exclusive.

In fact, I would argue that they are one in the same. Our love for God drives love for our neighbors.

For ONE and its members and partners, it’s been an amazing decade. I’ll never forget when George W. Bush announced PEPFAR during a State of the Union address. For months, ONE members, including many in the faith community, were advocating for just such a life-saving program.

When President Bush made the announcement, I ran around my living room, literally jumping for joy. We did it! You did it! Advocacy works!

I would have loved for ONE to have died an early death, for the work fighting extreme poverty to be done It would have been amazing if all the pledges made to help lift nations out of poverty were perpetually honored.

But they’re not, and international aid is often the first budget item on the chopping block.

Friends, there’s still work to be done.

Keep the emails coming, and the blogs, tweets, postcards, letters and phone calls, too, because they’re working. We are well on our way to eliminating extreme poverty in our lifetime, but we can’t stop now.

So, let’s all commit anew. We have extreme poverty on the ropes. Let’s deliver the knock out blow. We can do this, together as ONE!

Explore ONE’s Interactive Timeline on 10 years in the fight to end extreme poverty. 

In celebration of ONE’s 10th year together, Third Day will be playing their first ever “Third Day and Friends Festival” on May 31 at Gwinnett Arena in Duluth, Georgia, where they’ll be joined by Royal Tailor, Jamie Grace and Peter Furler to raise awareness around the fight to eradicate extreme poverty, what we’ve accomplished together, and what’s still to be done.